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Torture At Home: Documentary On Solitary Confinement in U.S. Prisons Misses the Mark

National Geographic's well-intentioned effort to show the horrors of solitary confinement may have caused more harm than good.

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Finally, these volunteers are not truly alone. They knew that people were watching them online; they could tweet and knew they had an audience. In contrast, the 4,300 people placed in isolation in New York are essentially voiceless. Some get to write letters and occasionally meet with visitors, but human contact is limited to guards, who are often abusive. Time away from cells is just one hour of “recreation” alone in cement cages, often without exercise equipment. Traveling from their cells to "rec," prisoners are shackled, and many of them choose just not to leave their isolation at all.  

On top of all that, people with mental illness disproportionately end up in solitary confinement. In New York State, an increasing number of people with mental illness are ending up in the prison system. Although designed and operated as places of punishment, as a result of the de-institutionalization process prisons have become de facto psychiatric facilities, but still often lack the needed mental health services. While the prison population has been decreasing, the population of people with mental illness has increased over the last few years.  

People with mental illness fare less well in prison overall and tend to remain in solitary longer. The size of the room is not the biggest challenge for these individuals; it’s the isolation, the lack of human contact, and the abuse from guards which prove to be most menacing. Even without any mental illness when a person enters solitary confinement, they are likely to develop psychiatric symptoms once in there.  

Unsurprisingly, suicides occur more frequently in solitary confinement than elsewhere in prison. The National Geographic volunteers did not replicate that experience. I watched them juggling, and laughing, surrounded by comforting amenities in the cell, including omelets for breakfast and steak for dinner. That is not the reality of life in the real box.  

We have made some progress in New York. In 2007, the Disability Advocates Inc. won a lawsuit requiring that people with mental illness in solitary confinement in New York be provided with more treatment outside of the box. And in 2008 then Governor Spitzer signed legislation requiring that people with mental illness be diverted from solitary confinement. Unfortunately, those prisoners have to wait until 2011 for the law to be implemented.  

National Geographic deserves applause for shedding light on the issue of solitary confinement. While the documentary proved a powerful expose, their experiment missed the reality that that people are suffering in the box, with no support, forgotten and alone. While I hope these efforts sparked conversation, by omitting such key aspects, National Geographic’s risked perpetuating misconceptions about the ease of what it is to be in solitary confinement in the U.S.

Alexandra Smith is a criminal justice advocate at the Mental Health Project at the Urban Justice Center. She is also the coordinator of Mental Health Alternatives to Solitary Confinement, (MHASC), and is a member of Rights for Imprisoned People with Psychiatric Disabilities, (RIPPD).